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The saddest part of J.R. Smith’s blunder is he let down his biggest believer: LeBron James

James has been instrumental to Smith’s career renaissance and personal development in Cleveland. On Thursday night, the two couldn’t look at each other.

Cleveland Cavaliers v Boston Celtics - Game Two Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

The defining moment of this year’s NBA Finals has been J.R. Smith grabbing a rebound at the end of Game 1 and, forgetting that the Cavs weren’t winning, dribbling out most of the final seconds of the fourth quarter. A moment followed by LeBron James yelling at him and then walking away.

The elements of the blunder perfectly encapsulate the two men involved. It reinforces the stereotype of Smith as something like a buffoon or unintentional clown, a reputation he had for many years in the league before becoming a ridiculous but capable figure in Cleveland. Then there’s the incredulity of James as he pleaded for Smith to turn around, and his disgust at whatever reasoning Smith gave after the missed, late shot.

The moment is tragic as well. It shows the impossibility of James’ situation in Cleveland this year: he has to do his absolute best to combat both the super-powered Warriors and the ineptitude of his own teammates. That feeling of James against the World was exemplified when he went to the bench afterwards and asked Ty Lue if the team still had a timeout at that time. After Lue said yes, James threw himself back into the chair before putting his head in his hands and hunching over.

As Lue and the other players planned for overtime, James sat there in despair and disbelief. He had done everything that he could possibly do to put his team in a winning position and his own team committed sabotage.

There’s no better image for this Cavaliers season than James yelling at Smith to do the sensible thing after James had done the impossible against the Warriors.

Smith became a joke afterwards, as he usually tends to be when he makes a mistake. Any player would be laughed at in that situation, but Smith’s reputation makes the jokes easier.

Earlier in the season, after he came back from a suspension for throwing a bowl of soup at an assistant coach, Smith was asked if it hurt him when people made jokes about his mishaps. He responded he was aware that everything he did would become a meme.

“Nah, not really. I mean some of them were actually pretty funny,” Smith said. “I understand that everything I do is going to have a meme or a whatever behind it. That’s just part of the day and age we live in.”

Smith accepting that he will always be a joke in the eyes of the public is sad. If nothing else, at the end of all the jokes, memes, and insults is a person who sees and feels all the negative things said about him. He cares, even if he tries to shrug them off, because he has to in order to do his job.

His acceptance also emphasizes the sadness of his mistake in Game 1. The one person who has always defended Smith, the person who Smith credits for saving his career and for helping him better his life, is James.

When the Cavaliers were put off by the inclusion of Smith in the initial trade with the Knicks to get Iman Shumpert, James stepped in to approve taking the risk. He would be responsible for Smith and his behavior. His words were: “Get him here and I’ll take care of it.”

Before that 2016 Finals, Smith was asked about their friendship. He said he was forever grateful for James making sure that Cleveland traded for him:

“Just to see somebody like LeBron, someone of his stature willing … I wouldn’t say take a gamble, but take a chance on myself and Shump, it means a lot. The faith that he has in you, the faith that he has in himself that if worse comes to worse, ‘If he does stray I can keep him in line,’ it means a huge deal to me.”

Smith has made numerous mistakes on (and off) the court in his career, but none has been as grand as the rebound and dribble. In letting down his team, he also let down the one individual who has cared for, defended, and empowered him above everyone else.

When James and Smith walked back to the bench, they sat a seat apart. After a few seconds, Smith took a deep breath, pulled his jersey to his face and then hung his head in disappointment. When Kyle Korver tried to cheer the two up by clapping, Smith shook his head in resistance before looking down again. For the whole stoppage before overtime, James and Smith didn’t look at or speak to each other. Even after James asked Lue about the timeout, Lue’s blunder didn’t absolve Smith of his. There was only a seat between them, but the friends were as far apart as any two people could be.

James bringing Smith to the Cavaliers helped the latter not only salvage his career, but his image. Smith has been both misguided and misunderstood, and until Cleveland, was little more than a sideshow in the NBA. He had promise coming in and mild success in New York, but could never get out of his own way. A troublemaker. A waste of talent. A player who was too busy playing tricks, being silly, and taking ill-advised shots to be taken seriously.

In Cleveland, he got a chance to shed that categorization, or at least repurpose it into something positive. He had someone in James who actually believed in him.

That faith paid off in 2016, when Smith, as a defender and shooter, was instrumental in Cleveland winning its first title ever. He was celebrated by everyone. Shirtless J.R. became a meme that captured his new life, still fun and ridiculous, but as a winner.

But all of that effort from James and Smith to change how Smith was seen by the world came crashing down with one mistake in Game 1. Unfortunately for him, it gave the audience another chance to clown him as if he had never changed, as if more than three years of hard-earned personal growth in Cleveland never occurred.

Smith is entrenched in NBA history as the guy who cost the Cavaliers that game, and possibly the series. The picture of James yelling at him with his arms out is unforgettable. His defining moment wasn’t a positive play like many of us dream of making when we imagine our sports careers as kids, but one of the biggest mistakes in NBA Finals history. And worst of all, it came at the expense of someone he really cares about.

Smith can always brush off the jokes and disappointment from the rest of the world, but it had to be crushing that it was James, of all people, who couldn’t even look at him.